Northern Ireland struggles as lack of trust persists in preamble to talks

Secretary of State Teresa Villiers places responsibility back where it should lie - on the shoulders of the political parties

 

The Irish and British Governments must be close to despair as they watch carefully constructed power sharing mechanisms crumble in Northern Ireland because of visceral distrust and political gamesmanship. They are not the only ones. Ordinary citizens are disillusioned and frustrated because of the inability of their elected representatives to pull together for the common good. Without cooperation, the economy will not grow; jobs will not be created and dependency on British Treasury subventions will increase.

Not just “dysfunctional”, but “increasingly dysfunctional” was how Northern Ireland Secretary of State Teresa Villiers described relations within the institutions designed to facilitate power sharing. Years of bloody-minded obstruction and point scoring meant that cooperation between the main parties had almost completely broken down and the latest crisis threatened to tip the Executive over the edge.

Ms Villiers attempted to steer a middle course and placed responsibility back where it should lie: on the shoulders of the Northern Ireland parties. Thus, she suggested that “serious consideration” might be given to the re-establishment of an Independent Monitoring Commission, but that its terms of reference should be agreed by the political parties. Such a body, she felt, could contribute to community confidence and repair working relations within the Executive.

There was less flexibility on the issue of social spending and the adoption of a welfare budget. If the Assembly could not act because of political opposition, she said, then the British Government would introduce legislation “as a last resort”, leaving the Assembly in place. As for the cause of the current crisis – the arrest and subsequent release of three prominent Sinn Féin members in connection with the murder of Kevin McGuigan – she would not comment on a live police investigation. But a PSNI assessment that Provisional IRA members had been involved in the killing remained.

It has taken days of exploratory discussions involving Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, Ms Villiers and the five Northern parties to get to this point. Nobody wishes to collapse the Assembly. But trust between the parties has all but disappeared and there is little common ground. Sinn Féin’s insistence that the Provisional IRA folded its tent and disappeared carries no weight with unionists and little more with nationalists. A new monitoring commission could resolve those concerns. At the same time, a crackdown on organised and cross-border crime by republican and loyalist paramilitary groups would shore up the peace process.

These tentative proposals will be discussed with party representatives during the coming days. But there is no certainty that sufficient progress can be made to launch formal negotiations.

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